PROVIDENCE — Mayor Jorge Elorza on Friday visited the encampment on Wilson Street in the city’s west end and pledged to come up with a compassionate solution to a difficult problem.
“As of right now, we’re not going to send the police in,” Elorza said. “And we’re not going to have them move unless there’s a short-term, a mid-term and we’re working toward a long-term solution here.”
In addition to tents, a portable toilet, and a community garden, the site also has a table with a sun-shade umbrella, under which Elorza and several people sat for about 45 minutes on Friday. Elorza said he’s known Diumila “Matilda” Almonte, who first started the encampment, and her family personally for a long time.
Police had handed out notices Wednesday that told people they had to leave within 48 hours or be subject to civil or criminal penalties. Two days later, though, Elorza rejected the notion that the city would call in the cops or bring in bulldozers.
“That’s not a fix,” Elorza said. “That’s not even being serious about a fix.”
If they did simply put people out on the street without offering anything else, they would just end up in another lot in another part of town, Elorza said. Yet the city has also said the Wilson Street lot is unsafe, and heard from neighbors who are concerned about its presence.
“That’s another issue that makes this so challenging,” Elorza said.
The people who are staying there have questioned whether the city even has the authority to order them off the property, and Elorza fielded questions Friday about its ownership. A bank foreclosed on it, and the city says its redevelopment agency is in the process of taking ownership of it. That effort came before the encampment started last month.
About 15 people are at the encampment, which has prompted complaints from neighbors — but support from them, too. Tetee Kromah, who has previously dealt with homelessness herself and now lives nearby, said they’ll have a barbecue for the community over the weekend. The people there haven’t caused any problems, Kromah said. In fact, they came into the once-dirty lot and cleaned it up, she said.
“All are welcome,” she said. “They’re people, too.”
Outreach workers say there are no other options in Rhode Island’s temporary or long-term shelter system right now. There are more than 600 people on shelter waiting lists right now. Homelessness has increased in the last year, with more people living outside, in cars and in other places not fit for human habitation.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who represents the area, said Elorza should call a state of emergency to deal with the lack of housing options.
“This is America,” Harris said. “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Harris noted that President Joe Biden has sent plenty of funding down to the states, which she said should be used for affordable housing in areas where it’s needed.
Some neighbors, Harris said, have raised concerns about the site. She described the neighborhood as “working poor.” The situation shouldn’t pit people against one another when they’re all struggling, she said.
“The only enemy in it is poverty,” Harris said. “You see people pointing fingers at each other — no, let’s face it. Poverty is the enemy.”
Among those who have raised concerns is Heriberto Luna, whose roots in the area date back to 1980. He owns property on Wilson Street. One of his tenants has allowed a person who’s staying at the encampment shower in his unit, he said. He has no problem with that. They have compassion for the people at the encampment, he said. But they’re still concerned about it.
A group tried to go to City Hall but couldn’t get a meeting with the mayor, he said, so he went to Harris, who responded.
“I just hope they do something for those people,” Luna said. “We’re in America, and I know there’s plenty of money out there. Let’s help these people find somewhere decent they can live.”
Luna described the area as a working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Many people there do not speak English as their primary language. And some, including Luna, are frustrated by the situation, concerned about safety, sanitation and noise, and now concerned about the lack of concrete action.
“If they build houses there, we won’t have a problem with our new neighbors,” Luna said. “But you can’t have a tent city in your neighborhood. Would you want a tent city in front of your house? How would you feel about that?”